On August 28 1963, a quarter of a million people rallied in Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to demand an end to segregation, fair wages and economic justice, voting rights, education, and long overdue civil rights protections. Civil rights leaders took to the podium to issue urgent calls to action that still resonate decades later. Music played a powerful role at the March, and decades later, the performances remain some of the most iconic of the era. People traveled from every corner of the country to join the March, and the unprecedented turnout was the product of the tireless work of civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a coalition of civil rights, labor and religious organizations.
Longtime strategist Bayard Rustin led the logistical operations for the 1963 March on Washington, creating an Organizing Manual for local organizers that laid out the logistics, talking points, and demands. Organizers across the country went to work during the summer of 1963 to mobilize their communities and ensure safe passage to our nation’s capitol. They held meetings, distributed guides for what to expect, raised funds, coordinated buses and trains, and prepared thousands of meals.
As buses pulled into Washington, D.C. and hundreds arrived via trains onto the National Mall, the gravity of the moment and movement was clear. A quarter of a million people marched — the unprecedented turnout was a testament to the power of organizing.
Perhaps one of the most famous speeches in American history, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington is known for its “I have a dream…” passage. However, that was just one section of a very powerful speech. Throughout his impassioned address, he forthrightly called out the nation’s failure to act in protecting human and civil rights, and he demanded America live up to its promises of emancipation and democracy by guaranteeing the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.
The youngest speaker at the March on Washington was John Lewis, National Chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He began his speech with a demand for fair wages and equal access to job opportunities. He demanded the federal civil rights bill include a provision that would protect the right to vote and the right to peacefully protest.
Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, was one of the last to speak at the March on Washington. In his speech, he demanded equal access to jobs, an end to Jim Crow and segregated schools, and equal access to public space. He urged President Johnson to be outspoken on civil rights and Congress to stop using the filibuster as a crutch to not pass the Civil Rights Act.
In this speech given by Whitney M. Young, the Executive Director of the National Urban League, he implored attendees to take the message of the march beyond just its historic foothold. He drew attention to the continued perseverance of the Black community and rebuked “those who would make deals, water down civil rights legislation, or take cowardly refuge in technical details around elementary human rights.”
Marian Anderson performed “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” after Dr. King’s speech. By 1963, Ms. Anderson was a widely acclaimed opera singer and had made her mark on civil rights history. In 1939, Ms. Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a crowd of 75,000 after she was barred from performing at a segregated venue in Washington, D.C.
Joan Baez led the crowd in “We Shall Overcome.” Written by Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan, the song became permanently tied to Baez, who was already a folk icon and active in the civil rights movement. Decades later, “We Shall Overcome” is a still a staple in her repertoire.
The group performed “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” a classic folk song of the civil rights movement. Like much of folk music, the song’s lyrics have been adapted and traded by different artists and performers throughout history. It remains one of the most iconic and defining songs of the era.